State Fair

Infrequently Asked Questions: Who owns the Minnesota State Fair and its buildings?

A refreshment stand shines in the evening light.
A refreshment stand shines brightly as evening approaches at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 25.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Welcome to State Fair season! We’re back with your favorite segment: Infrequently Asked Questions. Last year we told you about where all the animal poop goes, how the fair gets cleaned up overnight and a lot more.

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson is back to fill us in for year two. He talked with All Things Considered host Tom Crann on Thursday about who exactly owns the fair.

Who owns the fair and all the stuff in it?

Like almost everything involved with the Minnesota State Fair, there isn't really a simple answer. The 322-acre site of the State Fair is public land owned by the state and assigned exclusively to the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, which has been around in one form or another since before the Civil War.

That society is kind of a tale in its own right. It's made up of hundreds of officials from county fairs and agricultural associations around the state. They gather each winter at a hotel in Bloomington and do their official business.

Their main business is to name a 10-member Board of Managers who run the society and the fair — that board usually meets about quarterly. There's an at-large president and representatives from nine regions. And the interesting thing about this is these managers’ jurisdictions correspond to Minnesota's congressional districts as they were in 1933, when this structure was laid out in statute. Minnesota now has eight Congressional districts, so a lot has changed in 90 years.

You might assume that since the state created the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, the government might have great influence over the society and the fair, but it doesn’t. That’s because the State Fair is self-funded, meaning it does not receive any state tax money.

What about the buildings — who owns the rides and the Grandstand?

Again, that is complicated. There are dozens of historic buildings and artifacts on the ground. The Grandstand, the Eco experience building, even the Ye Old Mill — they belong to the fair, but other things from the giant slide to the Sweet Martha's Cookies buildings to the Space Needle are privately owned but stand on public property.

It’s mostly families who own their businesses’ buildings, but they have limited sale rights. Once you're in the State Fair business, you really don't have many ways out. If someone owns a building in the fair and wants to leave, they can either remove the structure, have the fair buy it from them for an appraised value, or donate it to the fair.

A lot of people say it’s in Falcon Heights, but is it part of St. Paul?

Well, it's really neither. It’s not in a city — but it is in Ramsey County, so that's the mechanism through which a lot of state law applies. For example, if you assault someone, you'd be charged with a felony in Ramsey County District Court in St. Paul. The State Fair is technically the equivalent of its own city run by the Agriculture Society managers.

They oversee the police department; they own and maintain the streets and sewers and fences and lights. They have their own bonding authority to borrow money and they establish the equivalent of ordinances like requiring a ticket to enter. It's very, very similar to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport: It's like a city but not one governed by state charter, instead governed by a public entity that the public does not elect.